Coal Tattoo

Photo courtesy of Gov. Tomblin’s Office. Gov. Tomblin calls for statewide mine safety stand down during press conference at the State Capitol.

Last year, West Virginia led the nation in coal-mining death, as our state did  in 2010, 2008, 2006 and 2004. Over the last decade, at least 127 West Virginia coal miners have died on the job (not counting the far greater death toll from black lung disease) — far more than the closest other state, Kentucky, which has recorded 86 mining deaths between 2002 and 2013.

Often on this blog, I’ve quoted the words of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, who observed the ritual that political leaders, the industry, labor and we in the media seem to go through following coal-mining disasters — a ritual in which we all play our little roles, professing that we’ll do whatever we can to make sure it doesn’t happen again, hurrying through the process so we can get back to whatever else we have going on … and so the industry can get back to mining coal:

I’ve seen it all before. First, the disaster, then the weeping and then the  outrage. But in a few weeks, when the outrage is gone, when the ink on the editorials is dry, everything returns to business as usual.

West Virginia political leaders appear to perfecting a new part of this ritual, the “safety stand down” of the sort that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced yesterday afternoon.  Some in the media are providing a little recent context to this, writing:

Former Gov. Joe Manchin ordered a similar temporary stop in production after an April 2010 explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine, which killed 29 men. He also ordered one in 2006, after the deaths of 16 miners in the back-to-back explosions of International Coal Group’s Sago Mine and Massey’s Aracoma Coal Alma No. 1 mine.

But this whole thing is probably worth just a little bit more discussion.

First, Gov. Manchin did not order a “safety stand down” after the explosion at Sago on Jan. 2, 2006, and the fire (not explosion, as some are reporting) at Aracoma 17 days later … No, the 14 deaths in those two disasters weren’t enough to prompt such an action. It took two more mining deaths on the same day on Feb. 1, 2006 (see here and here). And, in fact, then-Gov. Manchin didn’t actually issue any executive orders … he didn’t really order anyone to do anything. As we reported at the time, exactly what Gov. Manchin did was a bit confusing to sort out:

Two more West Virginia coal miners died Wednesday, prompting a swift call from Gov. Joe Manchin for a halt to coal production to allow additional safety checks.

Manchin also announced that state and federal inspectors would fan out across the state’s coalfields for a complete inspection of every West Virginia mine.

“We’re not going to produce another lump of coal until this is done,” Manchin said during a hastily called press conference at the Capitol.

Administration officials and coal industry representatives, though, were quick to say that production would not actually stop today at most of the state’s mines.

In a news release, the United Mine Workers noted that its understanding is that Manchin “called for a ‘review of safety procedures’ at the beginning of each shift, after which work is to continue.”

… Lara Ramsburg, the governor’s spokeswoman, confirmed that Manchin did not order production halted – something she said he does not have authority to do anyway.  Instead, she said, Manchin asked industry officials to conduct detailed safety reviews before every shift starting Wednesday night.

During the inspection sweep expected to start today, state officials would ask for records to show how each operation responded to Manchin’s request, Ramsburg said. In an interview, Manchin said that inspectors would shut down any mines found with serious safety problems.

“If there is an unsafe condition that mine is not going to produce any coal,” the governor said. “We’re not going to put people in harms’ way.”

Asked what effect the move might have on production and the industry’s bottom line, Manchin said, “I’m worried about the miners’ safety right now. The economy will still be there.”

Fast forward to April 2010, in the wake of the terrible explosion that killed 29 miners at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County. Then-Gov. Manchin issued this executive order, in which he declared (not ordered) that no coal should be produced from underground operations that Friday, April 16, 2010, and that “miners should come to work that day and honor the memory of those who lost their lives by dedicating their shifts to safety.” The governor’s order continued:

Each underground coal mine in the state is encouraged to honor this declaration by calling a halt to production activities for twenty-four hours, engaging miners in a thorough review of safety procedures and taking any actions necessary to ensure the mine’s compliance with mandatory health and safety standards.

Gov. Manchin’s order went on, though: It ordered the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training to immediately inspect all active underground mines across the state, and mandated that the state toughen its requirements for the control of explosive coal dust, and sample mines to ensure they complied with those standards. Of course, those coal-dust samples were never taken, and the state remains far from enforcing the mandate Gov. Manchin demanded nearly three years ago, but that’s another story.

Now, go back to yesterday, and look at current Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s executive order. Unlike his predecessor, Gov. Tomblin actually did order mine operators to halt production for an hour for these safety meetings. But he did not, as Manchin did, mandate any additional inspections or enforcement actions.

And one of the more interesting things I heard at yesterday’s press conference came from Eugene White, director of the state mine safety office. He was telling reporters that his agency had inspectors at the Affinity Mine on Monday and Tuesday prior to Tuesday night’s fatality, conducting safety talks.   In fact, White said, the mine had to be evacuated at some point on Tuesday because of a power outage, but he did not have details. I had talked to White on Wednesday and asked if the inspectors who were at Affinity on Monday and Tuesday before the death had also, well, inspected the mine as well as conducting safety talks. White said that they had — but that he didn’t know what the inspectors had found or whether any citations were issued.  I’m just a newspaper reporter and blogger, but doesn’t it seem like one of the first questions the mine safety director would have asked his inspectors in that situation was what problems, if any, they had found prior to the mine’s second death in as many weeks?

At yesterday’s press conference, the coal industry and United Mine Workers officials — and lawmakers — who were present were careful to praise Gov. Tomblin’s “safety stand down,” and made sure they didn’t go too far off the governor’s office script for the event.  But when I talked to independent mine safety experts, they didn’t really think much of the governor’s actions. As reported in today’s Gazette, for example:

Longtime mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer, who ran MSHA during the Clinton administration, said the string of deaths should force regulators to take a harder line with the industry.

“You’ve got to put the fear of God in them,” McAteer said.

Tony Oppegard, a former MSHA staffer and longtime mine safety lawyer in Kentucky, said that West Virginia’s mine safety stand down is really just “a publicity stunt.” Oppegard said that increased inspections and enforcement would be more meaningful, and that he’s known plenty of unsafe coal operations where miners were routinely given safety talks.

“You can run a doghole and have safety talks,” Oppegard said. “To me, it’s just not an impressive action.”

 And Tom O’Connor of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health had this to say:

After a recent spate of miners being killed on the job in West Virginia, it makes sense that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin called for halted coal production to review safety laws and procedures – if only for an hour.

Yes, after a slew of on-the-job fatalities in any industry, it is beneficial to take time to review safety standards to prevent further injury. But Gov. Tomblin’s work doesn’t stop there.

What really is needed is for the Tomblin administration to take action on the critically important mining safety measures mandated by 2012 legislation. Proposed methane monitoring and coal-dust control standards, increased fines for violators, and close supervision of apprentice miners all urgently call for action by the administration. What is not needed is further watering down of the rules under pressure from the mining industry. The rules already are overdue, and miners clearly are paying the price, as we have seen with the latest series of deaths.

Only then, by cracking down on faulty or negligent employers and guarding miners from hazards on the job, will Gov. Tomblin really take the action necessary to protect the state’s miners.

If you’re wondering if these “safety talks” really work, it’s worth going back to read a Daily Mail feature story published back in 2006 that describes how these vents go:

The Winifrede briefing opened and closed with prayer. Dave Hughart, president of Mammoth Coal Co., a Massey subsidiary and operator of Winifrede, read the names of the W.Va. miners who died this year.

The miners observed a moment of silence that was interrupted only by the clanging of the emergency breathing equipment on the aluminum benches in the bathhouse.

Regular readers may recall that Mr. Hughart has agreed to plead guilty to federal crimes (see here and here) for his role in a Massey Energy scheme to violate mine safety laws and cover up the resulting health and safety hazards …